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Environmental Values

Deep Ecology, the Holistic Critique of Enlightenment Dualism, and the Irony of History

Andy Scerri

Environmental Values 25 (2016): 527-551. doi: 10.3197/096327116X14703858759053

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In the 1970s, deep ecologists developed a radical normative argument for ‘ecological consciousness’ to challenge environmental and human exploitation. Such consciousness would replace the Enlightenment dualist ‘illusion’ with a post-Enlightenment holism that ‘fully integrated’ humanity within the ecosphere. By the 2000s, deep ecology had fallen out of favour with many green scholars. And, in 2014, it was described as a ‘spent force’. However, this decline has coincided with calls by influential advocates of ‘corporate social and environmental responsibility’ (CSER) and ‘green growth’ (GG) that urge market actors to ensure voluntarily that social and environmental ‘problems are addressed holistically’. Given that CSER and GG have also been associated with rent seeking, privatisation and reducing incomes of the poor, could it be that some of deep ecology’s once radical ideas today serve to legitimate forms of exploitation that they once decried? A critical realist perspective can problematise deep ecology’s highly normative response to exploitation and alienation. By settling ontological questions in favour of holism and promoting moral voluntarism, deep ecology failed to address how actors with different interests might adopt green ideas. This blind spot can be cured by focusing instead on the active deployment of ethics, morality, values, beliefs, ideas and knowledges by political actors in historically specific contexts. Both critical normative and critical realist modes of engaging with environmental values are important; however, at a time when holism and voluntarism are gaining influence, critical realism offers helpful insight into the uses and abuses of such values.


Dualism/holism, corporate social responsibility, Green growth, normative theory, critical realism

REFERENCES to other articles in Environmental Values:

'Sustainable Development': Is it a Useful Concept? Wilfred Beckerman

On Wilfred Beckerman's Critique of Sustainable Development. Herman Daly

Against Holism:Rethinking Buddhist Environmental Ethics. Simon P. James

CITATIONS in other Environmental Values articles

Editorial: Questioning Socio-Ecological Transformations. Alex Loftus

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